A recent issue of the New Yorker offers looks backward.
There’s a tribute to founder Harold Ross, followed by many old stories and cartoons.
Karl Decker — the longtime, legendary and now retired Staples High School English instructor — is a devoted New Yorker fan. The magazine sent him scurrying to his cellar, where he keeps his back copies.
All the way back to the 1930s.
Karl Decker, with his 1934 New Yorker.
He picked one — June 23, 1934 — and settled down to read.
There was a long article about Franklin Roosevelt; a cartoon by Peter Arno — and 500 words of “precious whimsy” by Parke Cummings.
In the summer of 1960, Karl and Parke — a famous author and humorist — worked together at Famous Writers School.
Al Dorne — one of the founders of the Famous Writers, Artists and Photographer Schools — was always looking for ideas to add to those 3 “schools” (all correspondence-based, and headquartered on Wilton Road).
An advertisement from the 1950s.
Parke and Karl had already submitted proposals for a Famous Sculptors School (which required a railroad spur, to ship in granite) and Famous Dancers School (huge pads on which students would ink their bare feet, then step out the moves on big rolls of paper).
Their latest idea: Famous Weavers School. The preface read: “The School will provide each student with 4 English Shropshire sheep, a shepherdess, and …”
Dorne told them he’d have to consult with Ed Mitchell before they went any further.
“Inexplicably, our workloads increased markedly after that,” Karl reports.
First it was world headquarters for the Famous Artists School. Joined later by Famous Writers and Famous Photographers Schools, it made Westport known all over the globe — on matchbox covers and magazine ads — as the place to send your artwork, writing and photos to become, well, famous.
Later it served as world headquarters for Save the Children.
Today, alert “06880” reader (and locally famous photographer) Chip Stephens was across the Saugatuck River, when the 60-year-old Wilton Road building was demolished.
The long view …
The site is being developed by David Waldman into a retail, restaurant and residential complex.
As work proceeds on David Waldman’s latest project — converting the former Save the Children headquarters on Wilton Road into a retail/residential complex — it’s a good time to revisit Stevan Dohanos’ 1965 painting of the site.
Back then, it was home to Famous Artists School. Dohanos was one of those (very) famous artists who helped stay-at-home artists around the world discover their inner illustrator.
This painting — courtesy of Dohanos’ son Anthony — is a bit stylized. The house on Gorham Island is moved south, and Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall) slides very close to Main Street.
But it provides a very realistic view of the days when Westport was the center of the illustration world. Even without Famous Artists, we were a town filled with — and honored by — famous artists.
That led him down the “06880” rabbit hole — and a story on fellow Staples alum Deej Webb’s documentary about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in town.
That spurred him to write and post an essay on his philosophy-and-literature website — 2 of his passions, since he was a teenager.
And THAT led him to send these thoughts to “06880”:
Fitzgerald lived on South Compo Road, near what is now Longshore, in the summer of 1920. J. D. Salinger also lived on South Compo, from about 1950 to 1952.
I read a Salinger short story, and asked my mother, Nancy Hammond, about old Westport. She lived there from 1957 to 1997, and was involved in local politics.
When she arrived, Westport was home to the Famous Artists School, which purported to turn people into artists. Prominent artists like Norman Rockwell lent their names to the scam.
Norman Rockwell (center, bow tie), with some of the Famous Artists School’s faculty.
You would send in a sample of your work. They would write back, saying you had great potential, and should enroll in their school. Salesmen combed the country, recruiting gullible students. Ads filled the newspapers, Money rolled in.
It was so profitable that a Famous Writers School was also established in Westport, using the same template. Bennett Cerf of Random House was a founder. Prominent writers like Clifton Fadiman, Bruce Catton and Mignon Eberhart lent their names. By 1969 the stock price had risen from $5 to $40.
The next year, Jessica Mitford published an exposé, called “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers,” in the Atlantic Monthly. An investigation was launched, the stock price fell, and in 1972 the Famous Writers School went bankrupt.
When J.D. Salinger moved to Westport, Famous Artists School had been going for 2 years. It’s likely that he heard about the school. In 1952 he published a short story about an art correspondence school, called “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.”
When I was growing up in Westport, the phrase “Famous Artists” rang in my ears. The school rented space from Eddie Nash on Riverside Avenue. Since money was rolling in, they decided to build a new headquarters.
They chose my neighborhood as the site. Specifically, they selected an area we called the Gravel Pit. Now known as Partrick Wetlands, it’s between Partrick Road, Wilton Road, the Merritt Parkway and Newtown Turnpike.
According to rumor — spread by my mother, in countless phone conversations — Famous Artists School planned to build a large office, with a parking lot for 1,000 cars.
My mother banded together with other neighbors, and formed a group called Families for a Residential Westport.
A pond near the Partrick Wetlands. (Photo/Scott Smith)
They referred to their opponents as the Boyd Group (or The Boyds). John Boyd was a prominent Westport lawyer, who favored business and development. One of his allies, Lu Villalon, ran the local newspaper, the Town Crier.
My parents were Republicans. So were the Boyds. The battle over Famous Artists wasn’t a Republican-Democratic battle, or a conservative-liberal one. It was a development battle, similar to those fought in thousands of American towns.
My mother’s group won the battle. Famous Artists never moved to my neighborhood. They built their new headquarters on Wilton Road, along the river.
Cockenoe Island, off Compo Beach. In 1967, it almost became the site of a nuclear power plant.
The next development battle in Westport was over Cockenoe Island, where Northeast Utilities proposed building a power plant. Anti-development forces used the fledgling newspaper, the Westport News, to help rally support. The anti-development forces won, and the paper became the dominant one in town.
A third battle was fought over a dairy farm, Nyala, where Stauffer Chemical proposed building their headquarters. They won that fight.
Fortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house is still standing. I plan to take a look on my next visit to Westport.
Walt Reed’s death last week, at 97, marks the end of one more link to Westport’s arts colony past.
Reed — a leading illustrator, art historian and author of books on illustration and illustrators, including fellow Westporter Harold von Schmidt — founded the Illustration House gallery here in 1974. One of the 1st of its kind, the company is now headquartered in New York.
Walt Reed, in his Westport studio.
“Walt was a wonderful, quiet, sweet, mild man who taught us all a lot about the early Westport illustrators,” says Eve Potts, who worked closely with him on a number of projects.
“Walt was always willing to share his knowledge, always helpful no matter how small or large the task you asked him to help with.”
James Gurney says: “Genial, good-natured and enthusiastic, he almost single-handedly pioneered illustration history as a field of research. He legitimized original illustration artwork as a category for collectors.”
One of Walt Reed’s books on the history of illustration.
Reed was born in Texas. He went to art school at Pratt. During World War II he was a conscientious objector, working instead in the Dakotas for the government. After the war, he aided in European reconstruction efforts.
In the 1950s Reed was an instructor at Westport-based Famous Artists School. In 2012, the Norman Rockwell Museum honored him with its 1st-ever Distinguished Scholar Award.
The last time Potts saw Reed was at the opening of a Westport Historical Society exhibit on stamps produced by Westport artists.
He was part of that group. In 1976, he’d created a series of 50 stamps depicting state flags, to honor the American bicentennial.
(For an in-depth story on Walt Reed’s influence on the art world, click here.)
Today’s New York Times Arts & Leisure section includes a long look back at popular arts correspondence courses of the 1950s and ’60s.
Writer Randy Kennedy says “the most prominent” — Famous Artists School of Westport — “became a cultural phenomenon, a highly profitable business operating out of a gleaming Modernist office complex along the Saugatuck River.”
(Newbies, take note: that “gleaming” complex turned into the sterile, soon-to-be-vacated Save the Children headquarters on Wilton Road.)
Describing Famous Artists’ talent test, Kennedy notes: “No one, of course, failed.” Instead, they were used “to dispatch a salesman to the door, with a big leatherette binder touting the benefits of a job in art.” Some were real. Others? “A bit far-fetched.”
Norman Rockwell (center, bow tie), with some of the Famous Artists School’s faculty. (Photo courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum)
At its peak, FAS had more than 40,000 students. At $300 per course, that was real money pouring in. (And real postage pouring out. Famous Artists — and its offshoots, Famous Writers and Famous Photographers Schools — placed heavy demands on our post office.)
Kennedy describes another reason FAS was financially successful: “Few students ever persevered through the entire course, freeing up manpower and saving the school money.” Far fewer students ever became famous artists — let alone capitalized ones (in both senses of the word).
Famous Artists over-expanded, and went bankrupt in 1972. Its assets were bought in 1981 by Cortina Learning International, which continues to run it from Wilton.
But Famous Artists remains tied to Westport today: in the memories of anyone who lived here during its heyday. And in the minds of the thousands of “students,” who “corresponded” back and forth using the prestigious Westport address.
(For more on the Famous Artists School in Westport, click here.)
An advertisement from the 1950s. Perhaps Famous Artists could have hired a famous agency to create a more compelling ad.
From time to time, to the delight of some readers — and the annoyance of others — “06880” waxes rapturously about long-gone relics from Westport’s past.
The Remarkable Book Shop. Allen’s Clam House. Famous Artists School.
If you’ve read this blog for more than a week — even if you moved here this winter — you probably know those names.
Now it’s time to turn the tables.
Alert (and creative) “06880” reader Erik Marcus suggests looking ahead and back, simultaneously. How about crowdsourcing current Westport stores, restaurants and institutions that — 30, 40 or 50 years from now — would deserve as much respect, if they are no longer around?
To make it interesting — and because we’ve given plenty of props already to places like Westport Pizzeria and Oscar’s — let’s limit it to relative newcomers. In other words, you can only mention something that did not exist here before 2000.
Hit “Comments” to add your favorite future nostalgia-inducers. Add a few details. And please, use your full, real name.
Will Bartaco and the west bank of the Saugatuck River still be hopping in 2054? Or will it be a long-ago memory? (Photo by Anne Hardy)
The opening of Bartaco has opened up the west bank of the Saugatuck River. A couple of nearby restaurants are coming soon; across the Post Road, Arezzo is drawing big crowds (despite limited parking).
Now there’s more good news.
As reported first on WestportNow.com, David Waldman has signed a contract to buy the Save the Children property next to Bartaco, on Wilton Road.
That’s 2.59 acres of prime riverfront property. Though Save the Children is an internationally known, very important non-profit, it doesn’t need that great location to do its good deeds. For a while now, the headquarters — previously Famous Artists Schools — has looked a bit dumpy.
Waldman will fix that.
Save the Children’s Wilton Road headquarters.
Though sometimes controversial, his recent track record is impressive. He turned a dilapidated but historic Federal-style home into the wildly popular Spotted Horse restaurant, and breathed new life into what is now Urban Outfitters.
Now he’s remaking the other side of Church Lane. Bedford Square will bring a mix of retail, residential and office space to this vital but previously underutilized area of downtown.
It’s a project with plenty of moving parts. Throughout the long approval process, Waldman has listened to concerns — of taxpayers and town officials — and adapted well. He’s shown an interest in preservation, while understanding the needs of a suburban town re-imagining its entire downtown.
Plans for Bedford Square looking east, up Church Lane toward Christ & Holy Trinity. The Spotted Horse is on the right.
Bedford Square has had hiccups. But Waldman has shown a willingness to adapt, and a flexibility sometimes missing in past developments — his, and others.
I believe Waldman will show similar creativity and concern for his new Save the Children property. This is an enormous opportunity to remake a very cool, very important — and very overlooked — part of Westport.
I have no idea what Waldman will propose. I don’t know whether he bought the building and land because he already has a plan, or if he just realized the location, location, location was superb.
But I have faith he’ll turn it into something Westport can be proud of, and use to full advantage.
Waldman is a Westporter. His heart is here. That’s good news indeed for the future of our entire downtown.
Do you have a vision for the future use of Save the Children? Click “Comments” — and remember, full names please!
Save the Children‘s possible move out of its Wilton Road headquarters has generated plenty of headlines.
And you’d have to be living, brain dead, under a very large rock to not know that the Westport Y‘s move 2 miles up that same Wilton Road has caused considerable agita in town.
Why, then, has the proposed relocation of Westport’s largest employer — and biggest taxpayer — been met with a thunderous round of “meh”?
Bridgewater Associates employs 1,200 people. It pays $500,000 a year in taxes. In 5 years, though, they hope to take all those workers — and tax dollars — down I-95 to Stamford.
(Then again, maybe not. On Monday the CT Mirror posted a long story describing opposition to the 750,000-square foot headquarters — “smack in the middle of a high-risk flood zone.”
(Plus, some folks are atwitter that Bridgewater will receive $115 million in state assistance to ease the move. The firm has $130 billion under management. And CEO Ray Dallio — worth $10 billion himself — is one of the world’s richest men, according to Forbes magazine.)
Oh, did I mention that Bridgewater Associations is not just “a” hedge fund. It is, according to CNN Money, the largest hedge fund.
On the planet.
Whoa! So not only is Bridgewater Westport’s largest employer and taxpayer — it’s also the mother of all hedge funds.
This guy does not work at Bridgewater Associates. At least, I don’t think he does.
Yet when was the last time you heard anyone say anything about them leaving?
Or, in fact, the last time someone said something about the fact that they’re even here?
I understand hedge funds are somewhat secretive. But think of the big corporations we’ve had in Westport.
Everyone knows Save the Children. Its predecessor, Famous Artists Schools, was also world-famous. (Okay, they had to get their name out there. Their customers were people paying a few dollars to learn to draw and write, not fabulously wealthy customers hoping to become even fabulously wealthier.)
But when Marketing Corporation of America — the world’s largest marketing firm, at the time — was headquartered on Riverside Avenue, everyone in town sure knew they were here.
We knew Tauck Tours was here too. They’re the company that invented the group travel industry, then modernized it with high-end, worldwide itineraries.
Same with Stauffer Chemical, which made (hey, someone had to) herbicides for corn and rice.
And before that, Embalmers’ Supply Company — yes, the largest in the world — called Westport home.
All of those businesses — big, robust, important — were integral parts of Westport. As corporations, they were good neighbors. As human beings, themen and women who worked there were our neighbors.
But Bridgewater has been virtually invisible. Scattered in 5 locations — the 2 biggest sites are the old Glendinning building on Weston Road (very convenient to scooting on and off the Merritt Parkway) and Nyala Farm (ditto for 95) — it was easy for the hard-working, high-rolling hedge fund men and women to have little to do with Westport life.
Bridgewater Associates’ Weston Road headquarters.
When Bridgewater leaves Westport, 5 or so years from now, we’ll miss their tax dollars.
But I don’t know that we’ll miss them. Because, really, were they ever really here?
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